Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher

Thirteen Reasons WhyThis is a difficult book to review because of its subject matter and its intended audience. I think I would have an easier time tearing it apart if my it was aimed at adults, but this book is geared toward adolescents. One of my goals with this blog and with reading is to read and write about some adolescent fiction. I teach middle school, and I want to be able to discuss books with my students. I want to be able to make book recommendations. This is not one I’d recommend.

Several years ago, 13 Reasons Why released as a Netflix series. I watched some of it, but I had to stop watching it because it became too difficult to watch. Reading the book was better. I was able to make it through.

Plot Synopsis (Spoiler-Free)

Clay Jenson comes home from school and finds a package addressed to him on his porch. Inside, he finds tapes recorded by a girl named Hannah Baker. Clay recognizes her voice and knows her as a girl he worked with at a movie theater, a classmate at school, a crush, and a girl who committed suicide a few weeks ago.

To the listeners of the tapes, Hannah says that there are thirteen reasons why she committed suicide, and if they are listening, they are one of the reasons. Clay listens to her story and the stories of people he knows, each one getting a side of a cassette tape (except one guy, who gets two). He wonders why he is and where he will appear on the tapes.

Review

I want to start this review by saying I am not a fan of this book. It is not for the typical reason that people hate on it — that it glorifies suicide, though the message, a different one, is a big reason I don’t like it. I think there are a lot of issues with this book, and I’m going to discuss three big ones for me, but I acknowledge that some readers may find merit in a book I don’t like, so let’s start with what the book does well.

Strengths

1. Format – I think one of the reasons this book has been so successful is the format. A girl telling her story via audiotapes is an interesting way to deliver a narrative. I like the little play button inserted in the book before Hannah starts talking, and the stop button when Clay has to stop listening to go somewhere, talk to another character, or think. I appreciate that Hannah’s narration is italicized while Clay’s is not, to make it more clear for the reader. It was something I had to get used to; I read some of Clay’s thoughts as Hannah and vice versa at first, but that was probably just me.

I like that the book is divided into sides of cassettes instead of chapters. It made the book an easy, straightforward read. If I only had time to read one story, I could and had a natural stopping place. I think this would be beneficial for readers who are triggered by the book’s content and can only read the book in chunks.

2. Subject Matter – Not only is the subject matter interesting, but it is important. Suicide is a subject that people shy away from, and it is a subject that should be discussed more and freely, especially with adolescents. I think that this book drew the world’s attention to adolescent suicide, at least for a little while, and I think that’s a good thing. Conversations were able to happen. People still talk about this book and the Netflix show.

While I say that, it would be remiss of me to not bring up the increased rates of suicide that have been linked to the Netflix show’s and this book’s perceived “glorification” of suicide. I am not going to comment on these statistics one way or another because I am not a professional and I have not researched this subject enough. However, I want to say that I believe Hannah handles her situation poorly. Given what happens to her, I think it is a good thing that her decisions are poor because if she did the right things and the book still ended in her death, it would send a bad message to young readers. Readers should read this book knowing Hannah’s choices are poor. With that mindset, it can be a springboard for healthy and necessary conversations.

Weaknesses

1. Clay’s Thoughts – Clay was annoying through my read. A big reason for that, I believe, is Clay’s thoughts are misplaced. Asher scattered them throughout Hannah’s narration. There is italics as Hannah is narrating, and every so often you will see a sentence or two from Clay that is not in italics. I get Clay is having reactions, and I understand the appeal of cueing the reader in on his thoughts, but his lines are mostly very obvious observations, unimportant details, or are extremely repetitive. They were jarring and pulled me out of the book. It’s a shame, because Hannah’s narration over the tapes is one of the highlights of the book, and Clay’s interjections weaken it.

I’m not sure what Asher could have done to fix this, thought perhaps he could have left us to read what Clay thinks and how Clay feels after the stop button has been pressed. This is an issue I think Asher is aware of, because he discussed his process in an interview included at the back of the book. The issue came from not knowing what he was going to do with Clay.

I had absolutely no idea where Clay came in. So a lot of his reactions were pointless, and I ended up deleting them.

He didn’t delete enough.

2. Clay – Clay is a nice guy and is incredibly likeable. He is a hero in this dark story, but why do we need a hero? Hannah commits suicide. Having Clay as a protagonist implies that Clay should do something, as he does at the end of the novel when he says hello to a girl named Skye he suspects is suicidal, or could have, which leaves him feeling misplaced guilt. Hannah’s death was not his fault or responsibility, and it should not be on his shoulders. He should not be on the lookout for classmates who may be suicidal and sweep in to save them. I don’t care for that message at all.

Having said that, there are some signs that people can be aware of, like a sudden change in appearance or mood, as brought up in the book, and if those signs are noticed, one should get someone help. I have no problem with that. What I have a problem with is someone feeling the need to be a hero. That is the message that is pushed with this book through Clay.

Apart from the message and back to the story, I don’t like that Clay gets a side of a cassette tape like he is one of the reasons even when Hannah admits that he doesn’t deserve to be on her list. She mentions it is to apologize to him, and sure, send him copies of the tapes if you want, but why devote a side to him? Why state at the beginning that if you’re listening, you’re one of the reasons, knowing someone who is listening is not a reason? Why count him as one of the thirteen? I feel like Asher wanted a likeable hero and narrator and created Clay. He didn’t know what to do with Clay, as he admits himself, and threw something together. It ended up weak and disjointed and frankly, weird.

Imagine how different the story would have been had Justin narrated this book, or Jessica? Heck, Asher didn’t even need to go with dual narration. He could have had the book start with Justin or someone finding the tapes, and then hitting play, and Hannah telling her story for the entire book. He could have out reactions from Justin (or whomever he chose) at the end, when the story is done, or at fewer, integral parts.

3. Message – I spoke a little about this with Clay, but the overall message of the book is not a positive one. A book can have a dark subject matter and have a positive message. The message here is that there are thirteen reasons for Hannah’s death, and she is not one of them. I think the author wants readers to take away from the book that our actions have consequences in others’ lives. I think that’s honorable, and I can see some readers thinking about that when they read this book, but overwhelmingly, blame is a theme of this book, and I think that overshadows Asher’s intended message. The book is called Thirteen Reasons Why. What did you do? What more could you have done? These are the questions readers are asking. Never mind that Hannah sets up the last two subjects of her cassettes. She counts on Bryce and Mr. Porter to do the worst, and when they do, it’s a fulfilling prophecy for her. Why didn’t Hannah say no when Bryce had his way with her? Why didn’t Hannah stay when Mr. Porter asked her not to leave? She ran to the hall and looked back to see if Mr. Porter would follow her out.

Look, I’m not saying Mr. Porter shouldn’t have ran after her; he absolutely should have. And Bryce is a horrible person and is hands down responsible for what he did to Hannah. But where is Hannah’s responsibility? What more could she have done? What might this book to a loved one of someone who committed suicide, who wrongly blames themselves for their loved one’s death?

Since suicide is the subject matter and Hannah needs to die for this book to work, maybe Clay could have reflected with more emphasis on what more Hannah could have done rather than what more he could have done. And then, the whole thing with him approaching a suspected suicidal girl is just weird and inappropriate to me. Don’t be a savior; be a friend. Clay was a friend to Hannah and respected her boundaries when she asked him to leave. He has nothing to feel guilty about.

Final Thoughts

I think this book would be better read socially in a book club, a classroom, or somewhere else where discussion can take place. Because Hannah’s choices are poor, but Clay’s are whose I feel are stressed, readers have to be really careful about what they take away from this book. Discussion could help with that. A reader reading this alone, especially a younger reader with little life experience and possibly little support is scary to me, and this book is targeted toward adolescents.

Apart from the message, looking at Thirteen Reasons Why as a piece of literature, the biggest issue I have with this book is Clay. Someone else should have narrated. Someone else should have been Number Nine.

I give this book two recorded cassette tapes out of five.

If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, reach out to someone. You’re not alone. Call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. 

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